SABC became a “soap opera”. But it’s an educational one.

South Africans thought they had fireproofed their public broadcaster when they began re-designing the institution in 1993. Never again, it was believed, would the South African Broadcasting Corporation be used as a tool of political abuse, as it had been in the apartheid era.

Hatred and suspicion attended the SABC back then. This was the result of the broadcaster rationalising white racism, demonising the resistance and trying to divide black South Africans through promoting tribalism. Because of this record, there was a clear recognition by anti-apartheid activists that if the 1994 election was to be free and fair, control of this key means of communication would have be vested in an independent board. It was also perceived that the de facto state monopoly on broadcasting would have to end, and that the licensing process of new players be set up under the auspices of an independent regulator.

A broad-based civil society coalition drove these developments, with participation from the leading resistance group – the African National Congress (ANC) which would go on to win the 1994 election. It was possible to secure breakthroughs in all the desired areas of reform, due to a historical window of opportunity where rival political forces were amenable to the depoliticising of broadcasting. For the ANC, control of SABC by the National Party was seen as dangerous in the build up to the impending election. The other side, knowing that they could not win the poll, did not want to see a victorious ANC assume the standing level of control. The mutual solution? Each contestant effectively agreed to relinquish designs on SABC.

From the point of view of civil society, and business, this was ideal. It opened the way for broadcasting to be recast away from a state-based monopoly tool for white domination towards the interests of independently reflecting the full spectrum of interests. Accordingly, the Independent Broadcasting Authority (IBA) was legislated in 2003. The subsequent national constitution provided explicitly for independent regulation of broadcasting. The IBA set about licensing – first, community radio stations; then, private radio and television. In later years, the same body – now named as the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa – also set out detailed public service conditions in the licensing of SABC’s many stations.

But even with increased pluralism, and with some privatisation of its commercial radio holdings, the SABC remained the biggest player in the broadcast landscape – claiming to be the primary source of news and current affairs for 27 million adults (SABC advertisement, 16 November, 2007, Sunday Times).

A panel of agreed eminent persons held public hearings for the membership of a new SABC board in 1993, and their subsequent nominees were appointed by the then apartheid president. The new board in turn oversaw a new leadership cadre moving in to change the broadcaster for the better. The SABC thus began to reflect, more representatively, the diversity of the country. It began to play a positive role in democracy and development.

Subsequently, a new system was legislated in 1999 for the board’s appointments. Although this reduced the influence of civil society, the mechanism – combined with various high-minded aspirations for SABC being set out in a Charter – kept SABC’s independence intact. Essentially the system put the power in the hands of a multi-party parliamentary committee. It retained the formula of conducting public hearings, and of putting forward a list of names to the president for selection or rejection. Conditions were also specified for the types of persons eligible for the office of board member – for instance, excluding political office bearers.

This system operated with a degree of credibility up until 2007, despite sporadic controversy. There were accusations of bias made by opposition parties, but most criticism was of the overwhelmingly commercial business model which was seen as diluting distinctive public service programming. Another controversy emerged about views of some SABC board members who eschewed “objectivity” in journalism, but then had to back down. After 1994, successive ministers of communications tried to gain greater control over broadcasting in general, but media reform activists and others lobbied to ensure that legislation confined government’s role to broad, consultative and transparent policy directives via the regulator.

There was widespread public participation in 2004 in a legislated consultative process to plug a gap in the system. The issue was SABC’s lack of detailed editorial policies to give substance to the fine sentiments in the Charter. The detailed policy, adopted by the board, spelled out commendable guidelines that insisted on political independence and impartiality. An initial proposal for a top-down mechanism of “upward referral” was amended to allow for reasonable editorial independence for coalface journalists. But one suggestion that failed to win acceptance was a separation of the top position into two peer responsibilities – editorial content, and business responsibility. Instead, the CEO was formally designated as the Editor-in-Chief, thereby concentrating these two huge (and rival) foci in one person.

Despite some imperfections, it seemed generally that the system was a model case, especially in Africa. But serious flaws in institutional design and practise began to emerge during 2007.

First, within the broadcaster, the editorial policies failed to empower rank-and-file journalists. They mainly preferred to please the perceived political preferences of their news chiefs who, after all, controlled their salary rises. The policies also proved to be inadequate on the use of “expert” commentators. Evidence emerged in 2007 of blacklisting of some voices for political reasons in the absence of clear-cut criteria that could more legitimately guide inclusions and exclusions.

Second, regulating the external control of the broadcaster was not as fail-safe as originally thought. In 2002, the SABC was “corporatised”, placing it on a par with other state-owned enterprises. This converted government’s role into that of “shareholder”, and the Minister accordingly became involved when the board selected candidates to fill the top executive positions.

Third, the system of parliamentary scrutiny and recommendation of board members was reduced to a partial-charade in 2007. Its design had never excluded the possibility of a dominant party commanding all the positions on the board, but the tradition had been to seek a degree of multi-party consensus on recommended candidates. What was lacking was a provision for an “affirmative action” proportioning of seats such that instead of a potential “majority-takes-all”, there would be a guaranteed minimum representation of candidates favoured by minority parties.

What really discredited the selection system, however, was the news in 2007 that ANC members of the parliamentary committee, notwithstanding their screening of candidates, not only consulted party headquarters about their preferences for a new board, but that they further let themselves be over-ruled on four names. It was evidence of ANC over-centralism, and of an instrumentalist mindset that the SABC was a tool of government, rather than an autonomous forum for the wider public. The same thinking was also evident in ANC policy proposals in December 2007 that there should be statutory regulation of the press.

Thus, the party’s selection intervention on SABC was not only contempt for the integrity of parliament, it also revealed cynicism about the notion a public broadcaster. Even worse, just months later after submitting their revised list, and no sooner did power shift in the party, the same ANC MPs suddenly found their tongues, and demanded the firing of very board which they had proposed to the president.

The circus got really going when the then president, Thabo Mbeki, ignored their motion of no confidence in the SABC board, the MPs then engineered a change in law to compel him to follow their lead. This was opposed by the pro-Mbeki Ministry of Communications that wanted a longer and more comprehensive process which would have taken some pressure off the board.

The convoluted route to this legal amendment proved unnecessary in the medium-term, because just months after losing control of the party, Mbeki also received marching orders as regards the presidency. Compounding matters, however, the law change also provided for the appointment of an interim Board, without respect for the safeguards that had been built into the process and eligibility for the standing board.

At the time of writing this article in November 2008, the law was still to be signed into effect. The SABC board had not been toppled, and instead looked set to defend its record against this fate. Meanwhile it had not been sitting passively. One of its early acts had in fact been to act against the SABC’s CEO, Dali Mpofu. Although he succeeded in twice contesting suspensions, in the end this status was upheld in court. A board investigation into his performance continues.

One of the key arguments used against Mpofu was that he had lost national football rights to a private broadcaster. Little wonder that this had happened, when this single person had, inter alia, to take political responsibility for content on SABC’s 19 radio stations and 3 TV channels, steer the broadcaster through the challenges of digital migration, and ensure the commercial well-being of a billion rand enterprise super-dependent on advertising revenue.

Notwithstanding this, it is widely believed that the underlying reason for Mpofu’s suspension was political, rather than performance-related. Formerly an Mbeki supporter, he was read as having shifted allegiance to the newly hegemonic camp in the ANC after December 2007. With the board’s roots in an Mbeki-dominated party and parliament, its members seem not to have appreciated such “floor” crossing. The Ministry seemed to take the side of the board against Mpofu, despite him appealing there for support. The senior SABC executives did take his side, however, and issued a statement that it was the board, rather than their boss, that should be fired.

Meantime, shortly before the CEO was suspended, he himself had suspended a key rival within the corporation – the Mbeki-leaning head of news, Snuki Zikalala. Subsequently, the latter was reinstated, with the Chair of the board saying he had been vindicated. Nevertheless, leaked correspondence later revealed different views within the board over this claim.

In the real-life suspense and drama around such power battles, Icasa’s voice was not to be heard. But the fiasco did galvanise civil society to reconstitute an alliance for media reform. The “Save our SABC” campaign brought together various unions, media NGOs, and media activists to call for action to clean up the mess. Their position was that the board was illegitimate and should resign, but also that MPs’ changes to the law should go further than compelling dismissal and include new safeguards against political interference (such as scrapping the corporatisation articles of association that allowed ministerial involvement in the SABC). Neither the board nor parliament, however, heeded these demands.

Within the broadcaster itself, SABC staff found themselves caught up in the conflicts. Some spoke out on one side or the other – including sometimes finding courage to speak out in public. Others also took advantage of the power vacuum to flex their muscles as independent journalists. These trends impact on SABC’s independence during and after the 2009 national elections. Predictably, as the poll has loomed, political parties and factions of all hues, and not least the ruling party and a pro-Mbeki breakaway group, have been lobbied SABC to cover their own people more, and their opponents, less. The board has complained about intimidation of journalists, and set up a hot line for political complaints.

South African Broadcasting Corporation’s (SABC) informal reporting policy came to light in September after an internal commission was set up to investigate the News and Current Affairs Managing Director Snuki Zikalala. The commission - under former SABC head Zwelakhe Sisulu and advocate Gilbert Marcus SC - found that the SABC had indeed blacklisted certain commentators and analysts.

The danger in all this is not so much in SABC becoming a mouthpiece for one party or faction thereof, but in it serving as a mouthpiece for all parties. The model then is of a “political parties” broadcaster. That is an improvement on a “single-party” one, and especially on a “ruling party” model. But it is also very close to a “civil service” style of broadcasting. This refers to a broadcaster that is “loyal to the government of the day”, even though it is also reasonably fair in giving some access to recognised opposition parties. Mainly, however, its content producers see themselves not as independent journalists, but as state employees.

In contrast, a public broadcaster differs in two ways. First, it has to represent key stakeholders in addition to political parties. Second, it should add own value by doing journalistic scrutiny of all parties and by helping to educate the public about choosing within an election. It is both an inclusive and a proactive form of broadcasting, that cannot be reduced to playing a narrow and passive part as a platform for party interests.

The SABC saga described above resembles a case of “innocence” being lost – of a once-inspiring media reform turned sour. That all-too-familiar narrative framework, however, misses some salient issues, and it serves only to demobilise media reform activity.

The main point is that despite SABC’s tribulations, there is no question that the South African institutional design for public broadcasting still represents enormous historical progress. This is not only as compared to the awful past of that country, but also in terms of comparisons with many other countries. Real retrogression of SABC is indeed possible, but so too is further progress – and this depends on what gets learnt from the recent developments. Amongst the lessons are:

• It is imperative for legislatures to act with integrity, and not let themselves be micro-politically managed by a ruling party headquarters;
• Corporatised public broadcasters need articles that will uphold their integrity against the government as representative of the owner;
• The allocation of commercial responsibilities of a public broadcaster should to be separated from editorial and other responsibilities;
• Terms of office for occupants of a public broadcaster board ought to be staggered, so to block the temptation for, and possibility of, a clean sweep of its members in any single political conjuncture;
• Board design could consider reducing the extent of parliamentary involvement, and instead allocate a portion of seats to representatives elected by social constituencies (eg. churches, university principals, unions, etc., and staff members of the SABC itself).
• Both the broadcast regulator, and the actual journalistic employees of a public broadcaster, should speak out loudly in defence of editorial policies and against those who treat the public broadcaster as a political football.

Another lesson is that instead of an agglomerated SABC, an unbundled broadcaster would reduce the dangers of singular political control. Many other countries have several separate and autonomous public broadcast organisations.

If all these changes were incorporated into the South African system, hope would be rekindled for a vibrant and independent public broadcaster serving the society. If the idea of public service broadcasting is to remain at least an aspiration, media activists can learn from the loopholes revealed by the South African experience and work towards reforms even before they become necessary.

Published in the WACC Journal, Media Development
Brief biographical details:

Professor Guy Berger is head of the School of Journalism and Media Studies at Rhodes University. He edited the 2007 UNESCO study of Media Legislation in 10 African countries, and makes regular submissions to the South African parliament on media law reform. He writes a media column at